Kansas City’s top chefs are increasingly adding consulting gigs and partnerships to their resumes.
Chef Michael Smith has long developed recipes for homegrown, fast-casual Spin pizzeria, to great success. More recently he has taken on a partnership with CocoBolos, a Mexican-style cantina very loosely based on a restaurant founded more than a decade ago in Manhattan, Kan.
In 1999, Smith became Kansas City’s first James Beard award winner. Earlier this year he was honored as chef innovator of the year by Nation’s Restaurant News. For several years he has owned and operated two very successful side-by-side restaurants in the Crossroads Arts District, his upscale Michael Smith and the more casual, Mediterranean-leaning Extra Virgin.
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“You can do a ton of stuff if you just focus,” says the 53-year-old Smith when I ask him if he is building an empire.
But a little more focus seems to be exactly what CocoBolos needs.
A mural of a whimsical cowboy riding a toothy shark, by local artist D. Ross “Scribe,” adds an urban grunge personality to a 4,000-square-foot dining room with an outdoor patio/bar space. But the menu at CocoBolos is, thankfully, not a college hangover rolled up in a tortilla.
It presents an inviting mashup of Latin American cultures, although I found the execution still a bit rough around the edges. From the medicinal cocktails to churros with soggy battered centers, what arrived at the table was not always what I’d expect when a celebrity chef of Smith’s caliber is attached.
My party of four attempted to snag a reservation on a recent First Friday. We were told nothing was available until 8 p.m. But when we arrived, there were many open tables. “It must be everyone is at First Friday in the Crossroads. We’re usually busier than this,” our server offered when I asked about the wait.
The bar menu, overseen by several bartenders formerly from such trending hot spots as Nara, Port Fonda and Kill Devil Club, features a smattering of easy favorites, including sangria or margaritas on tap. It also offers more intriguing libations such as a Brazilian caipirinha and a frothy Peruvian Pisco Sour with a heart of Peychaud’s bitters etched into the beaten egg whites.
CocoBolos is not immune to the sour and bitter flavors that have been seeping into high-end craft cocktails. Several cocktails I tried had what many cocktail drinkers identify as medicinal overtones.
For example, a dining companion who had never tried mezcal ordered a Burro de XOXO (sho-sho), a play off a traditional Moscow Mule featuring Del Maguey Vida, a premium mezcal, mixed with lime juice and Fever Tree ginger beer served in a copper mug.
My middle-aged friend was initially flattered when the server abruptly asked for her ID, until she realized it was not to check her age. The dimpled copper cups the drink is served in “cost 30 bucks, and we can’t have any go missing,” our server explained.
We were a little stung by the indignity of having an ID held for ransom, but Smith later told me that other establishments employ a similar procedure with the rather expensive copper barware because diners do tend to walk off with such trophies.
In the end, fancy cup not withstanding, the intense ginger flavor created a bracing sour cocktail that overpowered the naturally smoky undertones of a fine mezcal.
Meanwhile, to keep hunger at bay while we studied the menu, we dug into an order of house-made tortilla chips and salsa (a trio of tomatillo, chipotle and salsa Mexicana) for $4. The chips arrived in an attractive rustic wooden bowl, but from the first bite they were an overly dense and clunky affair. Smith says many people like the heft of the CocoBolos chip, but I can’t say I’m a fan.
We tried Peruvian white bass ceviche with a dramatic fan of plantain chips ($14) and uninspired shrimp quinoa fritters ($12), as well as doughy black bean and cheese empanadas with green mole ($8) from the small plates section.
The best of the bunch was also off the small plates section: the Peruvian crab salad ($9), a layered cylinder of real crab meat, guacamole and aji amarillo sauce with a side of spring greens. The flavors were just briny enough and the texture just smooth enough to edge out the ceviche, which would have been spot-on with a bit more acidity.
Most of the entrees possessed the wow factor when it came to presentation.
The chimichurri-topped hanger steak ($17) was perhaps the most visually enticing entree, served on a lime green plate topped with a colorful confetti of fresh slaw and rounds of ancho-dusted fried potatoes.
The same confetti of slaw covered the guava-glazed pork ribs ($21), which had a fruity flavor that would have benefited from a modest kiss of smoke. The guava glaze also made an appearance on bacon-wrapped shrimp ($24), which were tasty, if skimpy compared to the portion sizes of the other entrees.
But form also needs to follow function: the ample and to-order rare Cocobolos rib-eye steak ($29) nearly hung off the sides of an almond-shaped off-white pottery plate. Cutting into the steak sent the accompanying sauteed chipotle onions (well seasoned), black beans (unremarkable) and fries (overcooked) dribbling onto the table.
The pork chile verde — labeled “hot, hot, hot!” — seemed just the dish for my friend Eric, who enjoys a meal most when he’s mopping sweat from his brow with a red bandana he keeps in his pocket. The bowl ($14) was attractive, with pops of color from fresh tomato and sprigs of cilantro, and there were plenty of succulent bits of pork studding the broth. But it did not even begin to make me, of the milder tongue, sweat.
For smaller, more casual bites, try the trio of tacos (I chose battered tilapia, crispy pork and beef tongue fillings; grilled steak and machaca chicken are also offered), which proved to be a tasty enough value at $10. Unfortunately, the enchiladas, which my server warned came with a tomato sauce instead of a mole printed on the menu, were dry and tasteless, making me wish I had gone with the server’s recommendation of shrimp and avocado tostadas instead.
The tacos, tostadas, enchiladas, quesadillas and tamales are a la carte. Sides include drunken beans ($4) and an adequate if not remarkable mixture of corn, white rice and tomato chunks that was pricey at $5. Spend the same instead on a bowl of fresh guacamole.
Signature CocoBolos items include the Tijuana Train Wreck ($11) — baked layers of corn tortillas sandwiching shredded chicken, black beans and cheese that was served piping hot in a mini cast-iron skillet. The nacho-style casserole was pleasant and certainly filling, but I thought it could have benefited from a bit more spice.
The Bolo’s Classic Burrito ($11) was a fairly straightforward mixture of Spanish rice and black beans made memorable thanks to the smoky shredded chicken tucked inside.
Desserts, all $5, include an ancho chili devil’s food cake, which resembles a very gooey Hostess cupcake; Bolo Cream Coco Pie, served in a squat Mason jar, that I found jarringly sweet; a banana split; a solidly classic root beer float; and churros with a chocolate sauce. But it was the Glace ice creams by Christopher Elbow that received rave reviews from my companions.
While CocoBolos has a flashy bar and a fun patio space, Smith’s food-centric fans will no doubt be more satisfied eating at one of his Crossroads restaurants. Brand extension is, of course, a tricky business. Hip surroundings, pretty dishes and even a celebrity chef’s name don’t guarantee success. Ultimately, the kitchen and bar staff need to execute as if their names, too, are on the line.
CocoBolos by Michael Smith
5621 W. 135th St.
Food: ☆☆ An intriguing Latin American mashup of a menu that is a bit shaky on the execution.
Service: ☆☆ Service is friendly but not overly polished.
Atmosphere: ☆☆☆ A nice casual vibe with a large bar and patio area.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.
Entree average (including nightly specials): $$
Vegetarian options: Mexican crudite, chili-spiced peanuts, tortilla chips, salsa, guacamole, mixed green lettuces, farm house tomato salad with watermelon, cucumber with jicama and peanuts, Coco’s queso, mushroom enchiladas, mushroom and huitlecoche tostadas and sides.
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Parking: Street parking and a free covered lot are available.
Kids: Separate “los ninos” kids menu includes taco, burrito, empanada, mac and cheese, steak and fries and fruit and veggies.
Noise level: With so many surfaces for sound to bounce off, it could be noisy when full.
Reservations: By phone. Recommended on weekends and for large parties.
Star code: ☆ Fair, ☆☆ Good, ☆☆☆ Excellent, ☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary
Price code: $ Average entree under $10; $$ under $20; $$$ under $30; $$$$ over $30.
Code of ethics: Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewer’s. The Star pays for review meals.
What to drink
The full-service bar offers a variety of cocktails as well as agave and tequila spirits, wines and beer on draft and in bottles and cans. Many of the cocktails we tried were on the bitter side.
Peruvian crab salad, $9
Peruvian white bass ceviche with plantain chips, $14
Pork chile verde, $14
Three tacos, $10
Grilled hanger steak, $17
Guava-glazed bacon shrimp, $24